Subh e Azadi speaks of the outright heartbreak the partition of the subcontinent brought with it. Faiz wrote the words on the morning after August 14, 1947, and his disappointment in how independence was supposed to look and feel versus how it actually did is painfully clear.
Singing Faiz is probably a fool’s errand. Or rather, it is an errand, but not for every fool. To be able to pour your soul into Urdu poetry – yes, there’s a clear preference and bias here - and bring it to life, requires one to be a little on the foolish side. Some fools actually get there, and get there well.
October 8 saw the release of Arieb Azhar’s rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Subh e Azadi. Now, when we say it is tough to do justice to a piece of classic poetry, we mean it. Plus, Arshad Mahmood and Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani took their cracks at it decades ago, so for the people who would be inclined to give Azhar’s ‘Subh e Azadi’ a listen, already have a stick to measure the aural and visual success of this.
Arieb Azhar also chooses a tough poem: Subh e Azadi isn’t lyrical at all; rather, it is more a stream of consciousness. There are no rhythmic ins to make the composer’s life easier. Nor is the overall mood of the poem aggressively optimistic or revolutionary enough to lend itself to a rousing tune.
Subh e Azadi is instead, kind of on the despondent side. It speaks of the outright heartbreak and extreme disaster the partition of the subcontinent brought with it. Faiz wrote the words on the morning after August 14, 1947, and his disappointment in how independence was supposed to look and feel versus how it actually did is painfully clear.
If we take a step back for a second and examine Arieb Azhar’s work over the years, there is a theme that threads everything together. Whether he is singing kalam or ‘Charsi Bhangi’, Azhar’s inner pacifist-idealist finds a way to make itself known.
Just about a decade ago, Azhar released the angelic looking and sounding ‘Mere Des Mein’, which stuck out a like a sore thumb in the cynicism that permeated the air in those times.
How has an artist who generally seems to be all about love and peace for all, and the imkaan of things that can be, suddenly sing about a desecrated dawn?
Arieb Azhar believes that this sentiment is not so different from that.
“Like a lot of Faiz, the poem is both abstract and philosophical and yet highly political because it calls for action and the need to not compromise one’s ideals for the sake of expediency,” he says of ‘Subh e Azadi’.
As for ‘Mere Des’, though the words were gentler, the message was almost identical to what Azhar perceives Subh e Azadi to be about.
Back in 2011, Azhar explained the thought behind ‘Mere Des’ as: “Life/reality/truth (not always glamourous) is what brings colour in Creation, it is time to accept ourselves as we truly are, only then can we unlock our true potential.”
He describes himself as a patriot, and underscores that though his definition of patriotism may vary from what we have accepted to be correct, his intent behind works like ‘Subh e Azadi’ does indeed include his patriotism.
“The way the word patriotism is often used is as meaning that one should never question the establishment of one’s country, or embrace an abstract idea of the state,” says Azhar. “However, to me the word means loving the people of one’s country and thinking of their welfare, loving the diverse cultures of the country, and hoping for the best possible solution where everyone can express themselves. If that is patriotism, then I am very much a patriot.”
As for the technical challenges of composing music for a free verse poem, Azhar believes that it was, “[crying] out to be sung”.
“Subh e Azadi was difficult to compose because it’s written in free verse. This is the reason why even though this is one of Faiz’s most famous poems, it’s never been composed before,” he says.
The tune came to him, “in a flash of inspiration,” and thus he set upon refining the exact composition.
“I think my background in European folk music helped me a lot; there are parts where the composition almost reminds me of French chanson music,” says Azhar.
“At the same time I was pleased that the words flow naturally with the tune without sounding foreign or contrived, because in the end it’s Faiz’s magnificent use of language and metaphors that needed to shine through.”
The melody fuses together the viola, played to perfection by Sarah Sarhandi, while Zain Ali plays the guitars and Kashif Ali Dani takes on the tabla.
The video for ‘Subh e Azadi’ is set on a railway platform and is tinged in blue. Perhaps we’re witnessing the very first light of day; maybe it is the melancholy of the emotion that lays behind the words and music. Arieb Azhar had a very specific idea for what he wanted to convey through the visuals, and for this he had the perfect man in mind.
“I approached Jawad Sharif, whom I had previously worked with on the Indus Blues documentary, because I feel that he not only possesses the technical skills of a cinematographer but the aesthetic and philosophical vision of a director.
“This is Jawad’s first music video so initially he was slightly hesitant and warned me that his experience was more in documentaries, but after being convinced that I wasn’t looking for a typical commercial video, he took up the job.”
The video begins with the sound of a train’s whistle, and establishes a subtle connection between the poem about partition, and the song, that Arieb Azhar ostensibly sings for the future.
“We were both clear that the video, while evoking a sense of nostalgia, must talk about today and the need to move towards a hopeful future for both Pakistan and India. I think he conceived and directed the video wonderfully,” says Azhar.
‘Subh e Azadi’ the song may not appeal to everyone, and Arieb Azhar is perfectly fine with that. He realizes his audience may be a niche one, but that’s never a reason to stop making art. However, whether you agree with Faiz, or Arieb Azhar, or indeed with the concept of partition vs. independence, the song deserves to be heard.
Yes, the music is rather grave. Arieb Azhar’s vocals as always dominate everything else. Faiz was absolutely devastated when he wrote this: it definitely wasn’t the world he had hoped to wake up to. Chances are he would be thoroughly disappointed in 2021 too.
But just as he said a decade ago, and sings now, Arieb Azhar nudges us to think about not quitting, because we have a long way to get where we have to be. And the implication – and imkaan – of there being a final destination worth our while is enough to keep us going.